Southeast Asian Adventure Part 2: Luang Prabang

After our introductory sojourn in Bangkok, our Asia trip continued to the mellow Laotian town of Luang Prabang. I didn’t know much about this place before arriving, which made my enjoyment of Luang Prabang even greater.

There’s seemingly little “to do” in Luang Prabang, but surprisingly that suited me just fine. Situated along the Mekong river in central Lao, Luang Prabang is home to a lot of monasteries and monks. After spending a few hours in town, it’s readily apparent how much of a presence this has, as you’ll frequently encounter novice monks walking about town.

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Many restaurants and hotels line the riverfront French-influenced streets, and the main road through town is filled with cafes and small shops. It’s a bit tourist-centered for sure, but the warm weather and slow pace to things has an alluring way of grabbing you and convincing you to settle in for a little while. We still kept busy with activities, but a good part of our enjoyment was relaxing by the river and soaking in the atmosphere.

The weather was unseasonably cooler than normal, mostly in the high 70′s to low 80′s with somewhat overcast conditions. For us, it meant a nice break from the searing tropical heat. For the locals, it meant sweater weather. “It’s so cold right now!”

We arrived last Thursday (March 24th) and stayed at the Apsara Hotel, a beautiful place on the bank of the Nam Khan River (an offshoot of the Mekong). Everyday started off with a relaxing breakfast on the patio overlooking the street and river.

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Our activities for the week roughly included:

* Thursday – Arrival. Strolled through town, checked out the night market, hit up Sala Cafe on the river for dinner.

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* Friday – Rented bikes. Strolled through town. Hit up multiple coffee shops (Saffron, Morning Glory). Hung out for apres-bike at a cool, huge bar overlooking the river called Utopia. Couldn’t help thinking that the unfenced patio would be a lawsuit waiting to happen in the US. Love it. Dinner at Tum Tum Cheng.

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* Saturday – Busy day. Got up at dawn to watch the giving of alms to the local monks. It seems to have become more of a tourist attraction but it’s hard to complain when you’re part of the problem – still, some groups seem to go way over the line.

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During the day, more coffee shops and walking around. I gave Meagan a quick primer on DSLR photography and I may have created a monster. It was nice not to lug the camera around and Meagan tools some pretty cool shots.

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In the afternoon, we hit up the National Museum, which was the former and opulent residence of the Lao royal family. Afterwards, climbed Mount Phousi, a large hill in the center of town with a temple at the top. Chatted with some novice monks who were eager to practice English. Amazing views from the top.

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Finished off with happy hour at Utopia followed by dinner at Blue Lagoon with a super friendly staff.

* Sunday – Chilled in the morning. Walked through the town and market. Coffee/lunch at Joma cafe (my favorite). Took a river boat up the Mekong to check out the Pak Ou Caves. The trip was enjoyable (if a little chilly due to the grey skies) and the caves were moderately interesting. Lots of Buddha statues. On the way there we stopped at a local village, which is apparently a frequent tourist stop judging from the number of people selling handmade scarves and other crafts. Finished off with dinner at an Indian restaurant.

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* Monday – Lao cooking class at Tamarind. Started off with a trip to the local market. Great experience, lots of sights and smells. Let’s just say that Laotians are much more comfortable with the breadth, depth, and storage conditions of their meat selections than we are accustomed to!

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Class was cool – met some interesting travelers, many of whose multi-month Asian excursions put our three-week jaunt to shame. We met a young couple from Sweden on an extended trip who plan to return home via the Siberian train. Awesome! We made a few dishes, including a super spicy vegetable dip, steamed fish in banana leaf, chicken stuffed in lemongrass (very creative), and something close to mango sticky rice!

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After class, we took a nap, had a glass of wine at Pack Luck Wine Bar, wandered through the Night Market again, and finished off with an awesome tableside Lao BBQ (and shot of Lao Lao whiskey!) at Lao Lao Garden.

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Throughout the week, we would occasionally check on the weather of our next planned destination, Koh Samui, Thailand. Our plan was for our trip to be about half backpacking, half sitting on the beach, and Koh Samui was the start of the beach plan. We got a little worried when the forecast indicated pretty much constant rain for the days leading up to our arrival, often with large amounts (2-3″). Not quite the beach weather we were hoping for, especially considering this is the dry season!

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(photo courtesy of Camille at http://samui-weather.blogspot.com/)

We stumbled upon a super-informative Koh Samui weather blog, and started to realize that the situation was more than unpleasant – it was getting dangerous, with lots of flooding, and the airport had recently closed, causing lots of stranded travelers. We scrambled to figure out our options. Fortunately wifi with a laptop in the hotel to check out flights on Kayak while Gmail chatting with friends who have been to various Asian destinations is a world of difference compared to my previous travel experience of stumbling from an Amsterdam coffee shop to an internet cafe!

We considered waiting it out in Luang Prabang or heading to the Thai mountain town of Chiang Mai, but Meagan randomly suggested “how about Cambodia?”. A little bit of searching, and we found a relatively cheap flight to Siem Reap the following day so we booked that! It looks like Koh Samui is finally starting to dry out and rebuild, but unfortunately not without a few casualties for the people living there.

Tuesday morning, we checked out and said our goodbyes to the friendly staff at the Apsara and headed to the airport. We’re now well into our Cambodian adventure, checking out the the temples of Angkor and the town of Siem Reap, and it’s been an excellent detour (not to mention another large visa in the passport). But more on that to come.

Luang Prabang was definitely a winner. Here are some more pictures – more to come later when we return home.

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Finally, here is Meagan, soon-to-be all-star pediatrician, gracing the streets of Luang Prabang in local style, sans helmet!

 

Luang Prabang – we’ll be back!

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Southeast Asian Adventure Part 1: Bangkok

Our three week adventure to southeast Asia (Thailand and Laos) is underway and so far we’re doing pretty well. We’ve now checked off Bangkok and checked into the Apsara in the welcomely chill town of Luang Prabang, set along the Mekong River in central Laos.

Sunday / Monday: The 24-Hour Crossing

Our trip started on Sunday when we departed Seattle. Our full day journey began with a quick hop to Vancouver, a fourteen hour not so quick hop to Hong Kong (where at some point Sunday morphed into Monday), finishing with a sleepy three hour flight into Bangkok. Given that this was my longest trip to date, I was a little worried about surviving the flight to Hong Kong in particular, but the food, drinks, naps, magazines, Lonely Planets, Kindle, laptop, iPod, and in-flight video (lots of Modern Family and a trashy Canadian food competition reality show) kept us entertained and made the trip tolerable.

After clearing customs in Bangkok, it took some time and some phone calls to sort out what I thought was the pre-arranged ride to our hotel, but eventually a driver with a sign reading something like “SITZGERALG” showed up, and we were on our way downtown. We arrived at our hotel, Sala Arun, around 11pm and promptly crashed.

Tuesday: Touring Ancient Wats

Given the time change, we both slept fairly well, and woke up on Tuesday morning to a nice riverside breakfast overlooking Wat Arun, a Buddhist temple across the river from our hotel. The two cups of coffee were especially delicious and we hoped to serve as a antidote to any impending jetlag weariness.

Wat Arun

After breakfast, we wandered around the neighborhood aiming to get our bearings as well as trying to acclimate to the non-Pacific-Northwest heat (about 95ºF). We stumbled upon Wat Pho, one of the “must sees” in Bangkok. It was quite impressive. The “Reclining Buddha”, at 46×15 meters, was truly something to behold.

We then continued our tour of ancient sites and made our way to Wat Phra Kaew and the Royal Palace, arguably the most famous site in Bangkok. It was an enormous temple and substantially more crowded than Wat Pho. We walked around, soaking in the atmosphere of the ornate temples and statues. The most notable temple here was the Temple of the Emerald Buddha – what it lacked in size compared to the ginormous reclining Buddha it made up for in greenness. Sadly no pictures were allowed in this one.

Several hours of walking around in the heat was starting to get the best of us, so we cut that visit a bit short and headed east a few blocks for lunch at Chote Chitr. My fried white fish and Meagan’s curry were both tasty, but the highlight for me was the mango sticky rice I obtained across the street for dessert. It’s my favorite Thai dessert, and when I inquired of the restaurant’s owner whether they had it, she said no, but pointed me to the neighboring fruit stand and told me I could bring some back. That made my afternoon.

Fully satiated, we walked back to the hotel, and grabbed a pre-dinner drink and appetizer at the waterfront hotel down the street, the Deck by the River at Arun Residence. Well, it was supposed to be a pre-dinner drink, but when our pre-dinner naps turned into an extended 10pm snooze, it turned out to simply be a very light dinner. So much for defeating jetlag, but our first full day in Thailand was a good one.

Wednesday: Camera Troubles and Thai Cooking Class

With our super early bedtime, we had high hopes of waking up early on Wednesday to make a pre-dawn river ride to the northern market of Nonthaburi, but the torrential thunder, lightening, and rain didn’t bode well for a boat ride and outdoor market. Bummer. We instead made our way downstairs for breakfast and contemplated our options for our last full day in Bangkok. Walking around Chinatown in the rain didn’t seem super appealing either, and I was ho-hum on doing a museum, so we called around to a few cooking schools and booked a 4pm class.

In the interim, I was preoccupied that my camera had a spot on the sensor, and since Bangkok was the last and only major city on the trip, I was fixated on seeing if I could get that taken care of. Given the weather, it seemed like a reasonable option and Meagan was a good sport. I actually tried to make a run to the Nikon store the night before (post-drink, pre-nap), but completely underestimated the distance to the Silom district and the nightmarish Bangkok traffic and basically made a two hour, round-trip cab ride between our hotel and the what would end up being closed Nikon store. Oh well – I chalked that up to “fully experiencing the culture”.

This time, a little wiser for the wear, we decided to take the River Express south and connected to the Skytrain. This trip was much more pleasant and uneventful and we made it to the Nikon store in about an hour. Unfortunately, the sensor wasn’t so much “dirty” as it was “scratched”, which isn’t possible to fix on the spot and which will likely set me back some good coin when we return. Fortunately it doesn’t seem to be affecting the images too badly.

Done with this errand, we grabbed lunch nearby at Khrua Aroy Aroy and then checked out a Hindhu temple, Sri Mahariamman, next door. We then returned via the Skytrain + riverboat to the port of Tha Phra Athit. We walked through the neighborhood of Banglamphu, grabbed some coffee, and eventually made our way to the major backpacker thoroughfare of Khao San Road. This was a different version of chaotic Bangkok. After soaking up the international tourist scene, we walked into the D&D Inn, enjoyed some pre-class beers, and then headed to class at Khao Cooking School.

The cooking class was definitely the highlight of the trip so far. Ning and her mom Kobkaew, a well known Thai chef and instructor, were super friendly and awesome, and it was cool to have the class to ourselves. It was fun to learn more about Thai ingredients (like Galangal) and technique (like how to make a proper Panaeng curry by extensively crushing Thai chilis and lots of other ingredients in a mortar and pestle).

My favorite part of the experience was when Ning realized I was pretty comfortable in the kitchen and undertook a certain focus while behind the wok making my Phad Thai. “Ohhh…so relaxed before but now so serious!”. When I cracked an egg into the Pad Thai with a certain amount of flair and authority, Ning commented to Meagan: “Wow, your husband knows how to cook – you should keep him!”. Totally made my day!

We made three dishes in total: Phad Thai, Tom Yam Goong (Spicy Prawn Soup), and Panaeng Curry -  all delicious. By the end, we were stuffed, and whatever hopes we had of a final dinner in Bangkok went out the door. But it was well worth it, as much for the cooking lessons as it was for meeting Ning and Kobkaew. After class, we walked back through the backpacker maze and grabbed a cab to the hotel. Jetlag was catching up again, so we called it an early night and packed up for our early morning flight to Luang Prabang.

The cab ride was more entertaining than anticipated. Our friendly driver played a Bee Gee’s DVD while enthusiastically singing along the entire way. Awesome. While having a minor dispute over the fare (which we pre-paid through the hotel), another cab driver plowed into another cab, whose momentum carried it into ours. Fortunately no one was hurt and everyone seemed more amused than annoyed. A quick phone call settled our dispute, and we grabbed our bags and headed into the terminal, humming “You Should Be Dancing” inside our heads.

Our time in Bangkok flew by quite quickly – it’s impossible to do the city any amount of justice in only two days, especially when it’s your first stop on your first trip to Asia. But I’m glad to have had the introduction, and hope to return someday.

More pictures to be posted later, and more adventures to come!

Alaska Trip So Far

Since my track record for posting timely, detailed, and pictorial blog posts on trips is at best 25% (I still have aspirations of blogging about our African honeymoon 2.5 years ago…), I figured it would be best to write a short and sweet update for the Alaska trip so far.

This trip originated last year when the Seattle Jibber crew started discussing our next ski adventure, and Alaska heliskiing was high on everyone’s list. The details got sorted out over a few beer sessions at Naked City Taphouse and via many long email threads. But, several months later, we got our shit together (and purchased many bonus pieces of riding/safety/photographic gear), and made it to AK and Points North Heli Adventures.

The only problem is there isn’t any new snow. It hasn’t snowed in over a month, and apparently it’s bluebird in the forecast for at least the next week. Given that we forked over a lot of coin for the dream of endless epic Chugach powder lines, the lack of snow was a potential problem.

“Was” being the operative word. As JJ put it, the powder heli-boarding trip has become “Winter Camp for Adults”. We’ve definitely done a lot of flying and riding, but the amazing scenery, great crew, awesome old and new friends, and the constant and creative search for interesting entertainment in the middle of nowhere has taken precedence over the Mars-like snow conditions.

As for the snow, there have been a few pockets of goodness, but generally those pockets are surrounded by extra-terrestial conditions that I would honestly describe as the roughest I’ve ridden (which is something to be said for a unique experience). On the first night, when chatting up the guides over a few beers, most of them euphemistically would describe it as:  “It’s a little ‘firm’ out there.” I was a little worried when one of our guides, who after a few beers might have been being a bit more transparent than he should, when asked how it would be on a snowboard, replied, with a worrying look on his face: “Oh, you’re fucked.”

Other favorite quotes about the conditions: “Falling really isn’t an option here.”, “It’s Blower Hardpack!”, and “Sastrugi“. As for falling, there have been definitely a few longer than expected slides on relatively mellow terrain because the snow was just so hard and icy, so we’re definitely riding with an extra level of caution (and a harness in case we wander off and fall in a crevasse). But so far, we’re keeping things in check.

But what is lacking in powder is more than made up for in unreal scenery. It’s such a treat to be surrounded by tons of jagged, steep, snow-capped mountains and glaciers while overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The sunsets have been particularly surreal. Living in Seattle, we’re blessed by some pretty stellar landscapes, but Alaska takes it to eleven.

On the down days, or the after-ski time, there’s been a ton to do, often contrived and invented. Activities have included:
* Jibber Pong – a  hybrid sport combining the best elements of ping pong and beer pong recently invented by our crew and about to take the world by storm via some new acquaintances who have quickly adopted it – expect this to be the national pastime of France in about three years
* Sumo Wrestling – the PNH crew has some overstuffed Sumo costumes and one of the guides (Jim) appears to be formally trained as a referee
* Northern Lights – the Aurora Borealis is quite visible here, and last night it went off big
* Cordova Pub Crawl – after an aborted day of flying, we hit up three of the local pubs
* Helibeaching – on a down day, we flew twenty minutes to a local beach for amazing scenery, a bonfire, grilling, and chucking the football on the beach
* Tripps – late one night, one of our guides and the chef stopped by asking if we were interested in playing a dice game. It was pretty enthralling.

Winter Camp is pretty fun indeed. Kudos to Kevin and Jessica and all the guides and staff (especially our fearless leaders Kip and Tom) and the Jibber crew for keeping the stoke up and turning what could be a disappointing trip into something epic nonetheless.

And we have three more days. Time to go shoot stuff. Or maybe a glacier hike. It will be fun.

Northern Lights - photo by Brian Nevins

Valerio Snowboard Trip to Seattle!

A few weeks ago, some members of the Valerio clan (my mom’s side of the family) adventured out to the west coast for a family snowboarding trip. The weather and riding conditions were on the very damp side of the stereotypical Seattle mountain climate (i.e. it was raining a good bit of the time), but the crew helped prove that attitude is 99% of the equation in having a great time.

Whistler – The Journey!

The trip started off with a two-day trip up to Whistler Blackcomb, a four hour drive north of Seattle in British Columbia, Canada. There was some debate as to whether it would be better to leave late in the evening (“the west coast plan”) or to get up super-early in the morning (“the east coast plan”) following the 9:30pm Seattle airport arrival on Wednesday night. The west coast plan won out. I didn’t really understand the full impact of the “west coast plan” until everyone arrived at our house at around 11:15pm and Uncle Carmen immediately chugged a beer from the fridge, tossed me the keys, and said, “You’re driving!”.

Alright then!

It took a little getting used to the Ford Expedition they rented, and I think I made a comment about hoping my car insurance coverage was up-to-date (it was slightly harder to handle then the trusty Corolla), but after a few miles I got the swing of things. Apparently I was a little chatty, as my brother Brian commented that I was “channelling my inner Butch” (my dad, also known for talking).

The drive was largely uneventful – and fast – no traffic at that time of night. I thought the unusually confrontational Canadian border agent was going to make my sleeping uncle get out of the car, but after a minute of questioning (a minute is confrontational for the Canada crossing…), we crossed into Canada (with an obligatory 2-4 of beer picked up at duty free for the equally obligatory post-riding hot tub). It was also amusing a few hours later during the drive when Carmen started waking up somewhere past Squamish around 2am – which was when the alarm clock would go off at 5am east coast time…

We rolled into the village around 3am.  I hadn’t made this late of an arrival to Whistler since my infamous rain and snow-filled adventure five years ago when I was rushing to make it back for what turned out to be a legendary powder day.

I picked up our keys from reception. The village square was a sheet of ice from the freezing rain – I had never seen it covered like that – and walking around was treacherous. But, we managed to quickly get the gear into the condo and tuck into bed around 3:30am. Not bad, all things considered. At least we made it.

Blackcomb

Despite the late arrival, we were all up by around 8am, and once we had coffee and geared up, we headed towards the mountain. Given the lack of new snow and the clammy weather, we didn’t feel rushed so we stopped at Crepe Montagne for some grub. Afterwards, we headed to the gondolas, and met up with my friend Rob, who was in town with his family and joined us for the morning.

We headed up Blackcomb and had a pretty solid day. It was a little misty on the bottom and you needed to get to the very top to get completely above the freezing level, but on the glaciers and Seventh Heaven there was some pretty decent snow to be had. And below freezing level, the wet weather made for some nice spring-like conditions. As we joked, “the snow was well lubricated!” Or, “good day to test the Gore Tex!” The top of seventh heaven was stormy as hell, and it was as much art as science to overcome the winds and navigate the ski out off of the chair.

For lunch, we hit up the Crystal Hut, my favorite place to eat on the mountain but normally a zoo on the weekends because of its small size. It was tough passing up the Belgian waffles, but we were all pretty stoked with the chicken option, even if it did take a long-ass time to arrive. We were also entertained by the French couple behind us who were incessantly making out during lunch.

Post-lunch, we made a few more turns, and then Brian and I headed to Merlin’s for some apres while Colleen and Carmen hit up Excelerator for a few more laps before calling it quits for the day. My old Whistler housemate Louise joined us and helped us polish off some infamous Merlin’s Nachos.

We then headed home, did the hot tub routine, cleaned up, and headed into the village for more food. We settled on the Brewhouse. Brian and Carmen put on an impressive display with the ribs, and shortly thereafter, probably due to the food coma, beers, and lack of sleep the night before, all of us hit the wall. I was hoping to show the crew some Whistler nightlife, but that would have to wait for another trip.

Whistler

We woke up on Friday morning ,and, looking out the window from bed, the day was looking even wetter and greyer than Thursday. But there was no wussing out when you’re only in town for two days from the east coast, so we quickly geared up, packed up, checked out, and headed for the mountain.

The conditions were similar: wettish, with spring conditions down below and some soft snow up top. The upper alpine was on wind hold for a good part of the day, but when Harmony opened we headed over there for some of the best runs of the day. No Black Tusk up top. Sad.

After lunch at Rendezvous, we headed up to Peak Chair, which I thought would be a windy, blustery, terrifying alpine experience in the conditions, and I was correct. We headed down into Whistler Bowl, but after traversing towards the ridge above Grand Finale, I lost the crew. Apparently they weren’t willing to venture in the wind where I went while on boards (I was on skis that day). But we reunited relatively quickly down by Red Chair. They had a fun run, and I felt fortunate to survive some tree-lined chutes that I had really no business attempting on skis.

We finished with a few more laps on Green chair and took a ride on the legendary Peak to Peak gondola before calling it a day and heading for the car. We got back into street clothes, loaded up the Expedition, and turned south back to Seattle. Part one, the Whistler excursion, was a success, and though sad to leave, I was pretty sure the Valerios would eventually make it back (As Carmen noted when talking on the phone to my cousin Lauren, who was back home and couldn’t make it out due to school: “Now I have an excuse to come back – to take you here!”).

Friday Night

Our goal was to make it back to Seattle to join Meagan for dinner. Apparently it was a night out on the town for the fourth year UW med students, the family was curious to see what partying soon-to-be doctors looked like, and I was eager to see my wife. We made it back to Seattle around 7:45, a little bit after dinner started, but not too late to join in on the fun. We decided on “no showers” and quickly turned around and were headed out.

The word from the med crew was that Brouwer’s was pretty full, and not wanting to risk a delay in our eating, we decided to first fuel up at 74th St. Ale House. I’m always worried that the east coasters will find the west coast dining a little “weird”, but I figured 74th St. was safe (and fun), and Carmen was pretty impressed with the garlic ravioli sauce. Score. Colleen continued to sample as much west coast French Onion soup as possible.

After dinner, we headed down to Fremont to join the gang at Brouwer’s. We continued the celebration…some a bit too much…and wrapped up with some more late night grub at a new pie shop in Fremont (appropriately named “Pie“). It was a fitting end to the day since the now closed Four and Twenty pie shop in Whistler was my favorite hangout the winter I lived there, and savory pies were often my default breakfast, lunch, dinner, aprez, and late night snack of choice (it’s the perfect food to walk through the village with on the way to the lifts!). My culinary judgment might have been a bit biased after the session at Brouwer’s, but the steak pie that I downed was pretty stellar.

Saturday

Saturday was a rest day, and the Valerios had never been to Seattle before, so the plan was to go explore.

After sleeping off the previous evening, we headed to Portage Bay Cafe for breakfast, since it’s one of our favorite places and uniquely Northwest (at least compared to the Philly area…). In preparation for a subsequent viewing of Portlandia, we introduced them to hipster NW food terminology, like organic, free-range, and local. Regardless of its origin, they decidedly enjoyed the food.

Following the good eats and culinary education, Meagan hibernated to study for an upcoming exam, and the rest of us walked over to the Ballard Locks. Carmen is a civil engineer who likes boats, so I figured this was a must-see on the tourist circuit. The locks did not disappoint.

Afterwards, we continued to the Pike Place Market, another must-visit which is popular with locals and tourists alike for a reason. We wandered around and soaked in the sights (including the flyish fish, the gum wall, the original Starbucks, and the automatic doughnut maker) before stepping into Place Pigalle for a relaxing midafternoon snack. The mussels, cocktails, and other appetizers were nice, and Colleen had what looked to be the best French Onion soup of the trip so far!

We then headed home to chill for a bit before dinner. I had mentioned Portlandia a few times to them, discussing how it so comically captured much of the unique culture of the Pacific Northwest. I thought about whether to introduce them to the show upon their arrival (as a cultural primer to help brace them for their encounters) or a few days in (where they might appreciate the humor more). I chose the latter, and we settled in to watch three episodes on DVR. I think they left with a greater appreciation for the area, or at least that’s what I hoped.

After some naps, we headed back into the city for dinner. Brian was keen on sushi, but the others were a little hesitant, and after a little research, I decided to take them to one our favorites, Maneki in the ID. Since it was an old and unique Seattle institution, I figured it would be a good option, and they had enough non-sushi Japanese food to hopefully please the non-Sushi eaters. It was a hit, and I am pretty sure Carmen returned home asking my aunt “Are there any good Japanese places in Collegeville – we haven’t been to one in a while!”

Sunday

Sunday was the gloomiest day yet, with dark skies and steady rain. With the warm temperatures, the wet weather, and the upcoming Super Bowl, this would very easily have been a day that I would have skipped, but since the relatives only had a few days to enjoy the west coast riding, we had no choice but to brave the elements.

We headed to Crystal Mountain for the day. The drive was suspenseful as every one-degree lowering of the car thermometer inspired great excitement that we would dip below freezing by the time we arrived at the base. But despite urging things on, when we arrived it was a rainy 35F at Crystal.

Oh well – we were no stranger to these conditions by now, so we geared up, got lift tickets, and headed into the fog. Visibility was the biggest annoyance of the day, but again we had a great day enjoying the soft spring conditions and exploring the mountain. It’s easy to forget how priveleged we are to have such great mountains at our disposal, so I was grateful for the Valerios to remind me that, great weather or not, it’s still a ton of fun to go to snowboarding. And fortunately, the clouds parted for a bit which allowed the crew to see Mount Rainier from the top of the chaiflift. That has to be one of the best views from the top of any ski area.

Around 3:30pm or so we headed for the car and made our way back to Seattle, hoping to catch some of the Super Bowl (or at least I was). Listening in the car, it seemed like it was trending towards a blow-out, but when we got home near the start of the second half, the game was pretty tense, so we got to see the rest of what turned out to be a very entertaining game.

Meagan graciously picked up lots of food for us, so we munched on guacamole, pizza, and other snacks and mostly relaxed after the game. Three days on the hill mixed in with some sightseeing had rendered most of us pretty tired, and the Valerios still had one more day on the hill in store.

Monday

With lots of past and future snowboarding and other trips in the works, I decided I need to put in some time at work rather than join up for the last day’s riding adventure. Fortunately, they were treated to what sounded like stellar conditions at Stevens Pass for the last day of their trip.

The temperatures at the mountain finally dipped below freezing and a storm covered the mountain for most of the day, dropping a few inches of fresh over the course of the day and ensuring good riding conditions the whole time. I was getting a little worried since I hadn’t heard anything from them, until Brian texted me at 5:30pm that they were leaving. I was impressed – that was a pretty strong effort!

They returned to Seattle and joined me and some of my ski buddies for dinner and drinks at Naked City Taphouse. Brian was keen to see some he had met on past trips, and most of them seemed entertained reuniting with “Little Fitz” (or “Fitz 2.0″) and meeting the rest of the crew. After a few beers, we headed home and the Valerios started packing up for their early morning flight home.

Tuesday

The family got up well before I did to finishing packing and get ready to head to the airport. When I stumbled downstairs, they were on the verge of departure, so we said our goodbyes, and off they went.

I was content to return to “normal life” but sad to see them go. They certainly took advantage of their time here and their enthusiasm for riding despite the less-than-perfect conditions was infectious, and something I hope to carry long past their departure.

Thanks for a great trip and hope to see everyone again soon!

Open Water Scuba Diving

Today, I completed my Open Water Scuba Diving Certification!

This was something I had been meaning to cross off my todo list for a few years. I first got the idea during our honeymoon in Tanzania. Zanzibar (an island off the eastern coast of Tanzania, in the Indian Ocean) is reputed to be an awesome dive spot, and the hotel where we were staying (Matemwe Beach Village) had an on-sight dive center. But, despite watching lots of introductory sessions from our lounge chairs at the pool, we were too lazy to bother studying and training when we were firmly in a “chill by the pool” mode.

Since then, we have taken a few spring break trips to Hawaii, and each time, especially during our last venture to the Big Island, I wished I had my certification. After having an awesome time doing a night snorkel there with Manta Rays, I made a note to take a class when I returned to Seattle.

The last few weeks, Shannon at Silent World Diving Systems in Bellevue has been our underwater sherpa. We’ve spent a few classroom sessions learning about underwater air pressure, dive tables, and emergency procedures, and a few sessions in the pool to practice a whole slew of important things (mask clearing, regulator clearing, sharing air with a buddy, emergency ascents, etc). I also had a session to practice diving with a drysuit, which was logically strongly recommended by everyone I talked to due to the Puget Sound being in the 40′s F this time of year!

Our class was a little drawn out due to schedules and the holidays, but this weekend we finally hit the open water to put the knowledge and training to the test. Yesterday, we met up by Alki bright and early, but due to strong winds we relocated to Seacrest Cove, a popular dive spot near Salty’s in West Seattle with a fantastic morning sunrise view of the city.

We did one open water snorkel followed by two dives. The first dive was relatively contained to get us used to being in a non-pool setting, diving with a buddy, sharing air – basically most of the exercises we had practiced in the pool. The second dive was a little bit more of a tour around the area. Aside from some jellyfish and some smaller fish, I didn’t really see a ton, but partly that was because I was still focused on managing my buoyancy control and getting used to the marine surroundings.

Today was the money day though, with our third and fourth open water dives on a charter boat out of Tacoma. I hit the road around 7am, lugged my gear (tanks and weights are heavy!) to the boat, and we were off by around 8:30am. We were done with our practice exercises so our dives today were largely exploration and practicing navigation with a buddy.

I was paired with Michael, and we had a blast. The first dive was at the Barges off Maury Island. On this one, I was still fiddling a lot with the BC, but mostly it was fun to be 60 feet beneath the surface in freezing cold water and have a blast chasing fish. I wish I knew the names of species. Lots of starfish on the bottom. A few times it was a little overwhelming feeling the cold pressure on your face, getting tugged by a minor current swell, or looking up and not being able to recognize the surface, but for the most part, I was enjoying myself.


View Tacoma Dives in a larger map

We decompressed for a little over an hour while we navigated to the next site, Z’s Reef, which is near Fox Island. It was cool sailing under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge on the way! The second dive was awesome. We maxed at around 60 feet. There were lots of fish tucked along the reef, but the highlight was getting buzzed a few times by a sea lion. Apparently you can dive many years in that area without seeing one, so we were lucky to experience it so early. Also, it was the first time I felt relatively relaxed in the water and was able to just float for extended periods of time without exerting as much effort. Several saw some octopus tucked into the coves, but Michael and I didn’t catch any. Next time!

Being newbie heavy breathers, we ran low on air well before our decompression limits came into play, so we made our way to the top, did our safety stop at fifteen feet, and then surfaced, smiles all around. It’s pretty surreal to be in freezing cold water, be totally dry, with the views of the Cascades and Olympics surrounding you.

We finished the boat trip with some champagne to toast our certifications (kudos to Shannon for thinking of that!) and completed our dive logs, but mostly we were entertained by the endless and hilarious banter between Michael and Shannon. (“I’m going to Facebook the shit out of that!”). After getting to shore, we unloaded the gear, and then headed to The Office Bar and Grill in Tacoma for some more post-dive fun. We continued the banter, noshed on some happy hour apps and beers, and watched the Seahawks actually win a game.

Finally, though, we called it a day, parted ways, and headed home. I have two more dives planned to get my drysuit specialty certification, which I’ll definitely plan to do on a boat trip, scheduled around ski conditions. (My biggest fear was that our Scuba days would be on epic powder days! Fortunately Shannon is a powder junkie too.)

Thanks to my dive mates, Michael and Shayna for being awesome dive buddies, Rick and Jackie from Bandito Charters, the crew at Silent World, and especially Shannon for being an awesome instructor and cruise director. What a great day.

View the rest of the pictures on Smugmug.

New Commuter Bike

As the autumn weather turns a little cooler, the daylight draws a little shorter, and the roads are a little wetter, bike commuting gradually becomes more of a challenge. Wanting to stay in good shape through ski season, even if it was only biking to work once or twice a week, meant that I’d either have to beef up my primary road bike for winter riding, or buy a dedicated commuter bike.

I chose the latter.

Gary Fisher Utopia Stock

But to make the garage a little less cluttered (barely!), I first had to get rid of two bikes that were gathering dust. One was my 1994 GT Corrado, my first “mountain” bike (no suspension!) and in more recent years a town bike, but which had been sitting idle when the move to Greenlake made it impractical for riding to work. The other was a Trek 8500, my previous hardtail mountain bike, which I hadn’t ridden for over a year when I finally converted to the wonders of dual suspension. I was happy to sell them on Craigslist for a few bucks, and more importantly, clear the conscience for getting a new toy.

After an afternoon roaming around a few Seattle bike shops about a month ago, I opted for a Gary Fisher Utopia, a hybrid urban commuter, from Montlake Bike Shop. The geometry is a little mellower than that of my road bike, and the matte black frame and trim look pretty sweet. But more importantly, I was able to deck it out for riding to work.

The additions include:

So far, the bike’s been great. The disc brakes and fenders are fantastic for the wet roads, and it’s nice having the rack for lugging clothes and the laptop. I’m also pleasantly surprised with the front fork, which softens the rough roads without noticeably slowing down the ride.

This week, I finally installed the bike lights, which are hopefully the final additions. I wanted to reuse some of the many old lights that are floating around the garage, but I gave up trying to locate the mounts for them. The only other purchases I foresee are some warmer bike clothes, but I’ve managed to get by so far with my current bike attire.

So,  the Joe bike count is now at four:

  • Dean Titanium Road Bike
  • Trek Liquid All Mountain Full Suspension MTB
  • Commençal DH Supreme Downhill MTB
  • Gary Fisher Utopia Hybrid

That should do me good for a while!

Gary Fisher Utopia

2010 Lib Tech Downtown Throwdown

I have a goal of catching up on my large backlog of photo processing this weekend, and adding 355 new ones isn’t the best way to achive it. But I’ll at least try to set a 2010 personal best and turn around this set in less than twenty-four hours.

It’s a little unusual to waltz into Pioneer Square on a rainy day in October and see a snowboarding event take place, but that’s what was going on yesterday at Occidental Park with the 5th annual Lib Tech Downtown Throwdown. The weather was miserable but spirits were high, with a DJ spinning tunes, vendors selling food, and industry types hawking stickers and other stuff. A decent number of people braved the steady rain (or the “really high humidity” as the MC dubbed it) to check out the action.

The rain (and my lack of protective gear) made shooting a bit of a challenge but I managed a couple ones I liked.

View the rest on Smugmug.

Fall Trip to Vermont

A few weeks ago, we made a hit and run trip to Vermont for our friends’ Lindsay and Matt’s wedding near Middlebury. As Meagan joked, we spent nearly as much time traveling as we did in Vermont, but it was a ton of fun catching up with Meagan’s Middlebury crew and soaking in a bit of fall Vermont culture. Getting the tickets with Frequent Flier miles didn’t hurt.

Friday night, we caught a redeye out of Seattle, connected in Philly (where incidentally they have some sweet couches to lounge on in between terminals – convenient for a redeye changeover), and then continued on to Burlington. After grabbing our bags, renting a car, and cleaning up a bit, we were off to town.

We had a few hours before the wedding, so we stopped off at Shelburne Farms for their annual Harvest Festival. It was quintessential Vermont, low-keyed good times – with lots of tasty food. Apple bobbing, roasted ears of corn, flatbread pizza, butternut squash soup, and crepes. We wandered around, ate a bunch, and snapped some photos. We had to cut the visit a bit short to make the wedding in time.

We continued south to Vergennes to the Basin Harbor Club, location of the reception and the place we were staying. We were a bit pressed for time, but managed to dump our bags, shower, iron our wedding attire, get dressed, have a beer and a red bull, drive to Middlebury, and make it to the church in time for the ceremony. Seeing the wedding limo a few blocks away gave us some confidence that we wouldn’t be late!

An advantage of our sluggish arrival was the minister suggesting we sit in the empty seats near the front, which resulted in having an arguably better vantage point than the wedding photographer.

After the ceremony, we gathered for some pre-reception beers at the Two Brothers Tavern, and then headed back to the Basin Harbor Club for the reception.

One of the highlights was the cocktails on the lawn before dinner. They had a platform set up for hitting golf balls into the harbor and attempting to land them on a small float. No one hit it exactly – I certainly didn’t come very close.

On Sunday, we struggled with our west coast jetlag to make it to the farewell brunch, but managed to get there before they cleared the food. We said our goodbyes, and then headed to the adjacent airfield where our friends Heather and Kevin had flown in their propeller plane from Hartford! We watched them load up and prep for a bit before we headed back to Burlington.

With some time to kill before our afternoon departure, we grabbed some coffee at a cool Burlington coffee shop before getting some pizza with Kathryn at American Flatbread. With a little time left, we stopped by the Burton Factory store. I’m debating on getting a new board for this season. It’s probably a good thing that we were really pressed for time before our flight and that I was a bit overwhelmed by the different board options. Otherwise it could have been financially devastating. I escaped with a t-shirt and a baseball cap.

I rarely cease to make Meagan nervous before a flight, and this one was no exception, but fortunately we were able to refuel the rental car, return it, and check in for the flight with a reasonable amount of time to spare.

In total, we spent about twenty hours on the plane for twenty-nine hours on the ground in Vermont, but it was definitely a fun adventure.

Congrats Lindsay and Matt!

Links:

2010 Gran Fondo Whistler

Early this month, I rode about 75 miles, often uphill, from Vancouver to Whistler in the inaugural Gran Fondo Whistler ride. Matt and Rob already covered a lot about the ride in their blog posts (below), so I’ll keep this (relatively) short.

In sum: fun ride, very well-organized, challenging, but not as difficult as I was prepared for (I guess all the riding this season paid off).

We started with a 5am wakeup. Rob fetched coffee, we got ready, and met up in the lobby at 6am. We then assembled in the start line and waited what seemed like a long time to depart. Around 6:45, they sung the Canadian national anthem, and as a closeted Canadian who has known all the words to O Canada since he was about seven (mainly from being a Flyers fan and following the Philly/Edmonton rivalry in the 80′s), this made me happy. Shortly thereafter, the competitive riders started, and finally around 7am, we were off to Whistler.

The ride to Squamish was relatively flat. A bit of a climb out of Vancouver, followed by some rollers, and then a few hills before descending into Squamish. We rolled into the food stop around 9:20 am, just as speed daemon Rob, who had pedaled ahead of us, had finished his nine minute lunch break and was already rolling out.

We knew the toughest part from the elevation profile would be the climb out of Squamish, and that proved to be the case. But, despite some long hills and my legs feeling like they were on the verge of cramping, it wasn’t all that bad. I knew the end was in sight when we saw the first “Welcome to Whistler” sign down near Function, and when we rolled into the Village itself, I was stoked. We finished strong and then made our way to the beer garden to chill out. Arrival time: 12:32 pm. Elapsed Time: 5h 27mins. Riding Time: 4h 37 mins.

Eventually, we headed to the Pan Pacific, munched on some apres-bike nachos and poutine at the Dublinh Gate, hit up the hot tub and famous (infamous?) eucalyptus steam room, drank some pre-dinner Jaegerbombs at Citta (it is Whistler after all), and then had a nice dinner at 21 Steps. We were all pretty tired after the early start and long ride, but finished off with a round at Dublinh Gate before turning in.

Sunday morning, a few of us headed to Crepe Montagne for breakfast (Lemon Curd Crepe FTW!), and then began the journey back to Seattle. It was pouring rain for most of the ride through Vancouver and a few hardy riders were braving the journey back to Vancouver on the bikes. Fortunately the rain held out for our ride! But by the time we made it to Seattle, it was actually kind of sunny.

I’d love to do the ride again, but given that they raised the entry fee to $225 (which doesn’t include the additional travel costs to Vancouver and Whistler), I think next year’s ride is likely out.

Many thanks to Chelsea and Rob for driving and to the crew for another fun ride on the bikes!

Oh. I was hoping to put together a time-lapse series of photos from my handlebar-mounted Go Pro camera, but due to some “battery issues”, the thing crapped out 45 minutes after I started, which basically meant I got some sweet starting line shots. Well, some of them turned out pretty cool actually.

Links:

Accidental Dining at Elemental

This summer, I had one of my more memorable dining experiences.

Accidentally.

The evening started with me ditching work early to head to yoga. After getting my Namaste on and sweating up a storm, I left Shakti and commenced my hunt for dinner. Meagan originally had plans to meet up with some folks from school, so I was on my own. I remembered that I had half a leftover Salumi porchetta sandwich that I left in the fridge at work. I didn’t want to see it go to waste, so I headed on my way back to work towards I-5 in Wallingford to get it.

(Incidentally, I ran into Tony Bourdain at Salumi, another one of my favorite restaurants. He was in Seattle performing the night before, rightly considers Salumi one of the thirteen places in the world to eat before you die, and wishes he could be adopted by Armandino, the proprietor. Unfortunately, I didn’t get close enough to get a good picture, but you can count this as the first of two interesting food experiences that day.)

Bourdain at Salumi

While waiting at the intersection of 45th and Wallingford, I got a call from Meagan. Her plans were delayed a bit, but she had found “a cute little wine bar” where she thought we could grab a drink and a bite before her postponed meeting. Cute wine bar with Meagan sounded better than a leftover sandwich (even if it was a Salumi porchetta sandwich). Conveniently, the wine bar was at 38th and Wallingford, so I was practically there. I banged a right and pulled up next to the place in a few minutes. I parked in the thirty minute loading zone, figuring it wouldn’t be a problem after 6pm.

Upon seeing me get out of the car, drenched in my sweat soaked surf trunks and workout shirt, Meagan remembered that I had just finished yoga. She mentioned the place looked “a little nice”, and I debatably made myself passable by tucking in my shirt and tossing on a hoodie. We saw the sign for “E.N.D. Wine Bar” – there were two doors, and we chose the one on the left. We walked in, and the friendly host offered us seats at the “chef’s bar”.

We guessed something might be up when we were offered two apertifs as we sat down. When I asked what they were, the host simply said “something to get things started.” Cool? After enjoying the drink but waiting about fifteen minutes without menus, Meagan was getting a little worried about making her meeting, which had only been delayed, not canceled.

A few minutes later, the host dropped by and asked “are there any foods that you don’t like?” Interesting. We politely said no, now suspicious that we were in for something more than a simple bite at a wine bar. A little while later, two glasses of wine showed up and we were served a delicious soup – lentil, I think, but the evening became a bit hazy going forward.

We weren’t quite sure how to handle the situation at this point. I was very much enjoying the experience but it was clear that there was no chance we were going to finish the meal with time for Meagan to leave. After mulling over our options, we decided that I would stay and I’d politely explain our predicament to our host.

I got up from my bar seat, still a bit sweaty from yoga, and went over to chat with the host. I simply said that we were having a great time, but didn’t realize that this meal was going to be more than we had anticipated, that Meagan had to leave in a bit, and that we didn’t want any of the good food to go to waste. He couldn’t have been more gracious, asked when Meagan needed to leave, and wondered if she’d have time for two more courses.

Phew. We relaxed a bit. While we were waiting for the next courses, I recalled that there were two doors to the place, and we started considering the possibility that the wine bar we had selected was actually next door, and the second door that we chose was another place altogether. I whipped out the iPhone, trying to see where we were at, but reception was a bit spotty inside, and my attempting at Googling and Yelping “End wine bar” weren’t coming up with much. I tried hitting Google maps, and the closest place it had near us was “Elemental”.

Interesting, I thought. Elemental has been on my short list of restaurants I wanted to try, but I didn’t really know much about it. I only knew it by reputation as one of Seattle’s best restaurants. I knew it was in Wallingford, knew that it was a chef’s menu with wine pairing type of place, I knew it was small, and I knew the food was meant to be good. So far, it matched my mental conception.

But I also heard it’s really hard to get into since it’s small and they don’t take reservations, so it’s not uncommon to have to queue up early to get in. It didn’t seem like the type of place that two semi-clueless people, one of them looking like he was on the way to or from the beach, could just waltz into at 7:45pm on a Wednesday night. Plus, I was trying to reconcile where this “End Wine Bar” was and why it wasn’t on the map. But I turned to Meagan and said, “I think we might be at Elemental.”

We didn’t quite want to reveal our cluelessness. “Hey, where are we by the way?”, or “Is this Elemental?” didn’t seem like ways of making friends with the staff. So, we mused to ourselves. The next rounds came. I think the next two courses were a mixed green salad and a pan-fried halibut, but mostly I remember that both were awesome and each came with another wine pairing. After finishing the second, Meagan sadly departed, and I settled in for the upcoming culinary adventure. I asked her to text me if she figured out any revealing clues on the way out, but I didn’t receive any, likely since she was in a hurry to get to the appointment. Worried about the past and forthcoming wine accompaniments, she made sure I was planning on taking the bus home.

Meagan gone, I started chatting more with the two chefs working the kitchen. They were both friendly. It was a fairly small and unassuming kitchen, which made me suspect maybe we were at a wine bar after all. Or not. I didn’t know. Occasionally I’d hit up the phone to see if I could decipher it, with most clues pointing towards Elemental, but I didn’t know for sure. The suspense was both killing me and making me enjoy the meal all the more.

More food and wine kept arriving. I remember a cheese course, a tomato tart, a clam and potato ravioli with a saffron sauce, and a hanger steak. As the wine kept pouring, and my rapport with the staff increased, and I figured at some point I’d have to admit my ignorance.

Sensing a good moment during the ravioli course, I asked, “What is the name of the place next door?” One of the chefs said that it’s “Elemental Next Door” – the same as here, but priced a la carte. I still didn’t make the connection between “E.N.D. Wine Bar” and “Elemental Next Door”. Finally, I broke down. “So, I’m at Elemental then, right?”

They had a laugh. They nodded and said that we didn’t look like we knew where we were when we walked in. Go figure. I explained, despite my cluelessness, that I had been wanting to come here for a while, and the whole situation made the experience all the better, albeit sans Meagan. All the more reason to come back again, intentionally next time.

The meal wrapped up with a trio of desserts, all delicious, none of which I remember, and a digestif. As I was making my way out, Meagan called to let me know she was finished her meeting and was nearby, so I met her outside with some friends. Fairly toasted, I retrieved a few things from my car and headed back home in her car.

The next day, I woke up, a little groggy, took the bus back to the restaurant, was greeted with a $45 ticket for parking in the temporary loading zone (I didn’t anticipate parking there overnight at the time!), and proceeded to inspect the place in the light of day. I snapped a few pictures.

Elemental Window

E.N.D. Wine Bar

Yes, it was indeed Elemental, although given the subtle white on glass writing, I think I could be forgiven for not noticing it on the way in!

I am definitely looking forward to a return visit, knowing what I am getting into, and with Meagan able to enjoy the entire experience.

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